Cannibalism is commonly thought of as the consumption of human flesh by other humans, however in the natural world, cannibalism can be a common occurrence, even in species as evolved as primates. Researchers and scientists have documented numerous, incidents in which many different species of primate have consumed the flesh of other primates. Meanwhile, the illegal trade of primate meat or ‘bushmeat’ through many African nations remains a highly controversial topic.
Chimpanzees have been known to cannibalize infants from neighboring primates groups.
Our closest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, is like us in so many ways. Like humans, they have been known to be rather difficult and aggressive; however several studies have found the chimpanzees frequently engage in the consumption of meat from both rival chimpanzee groups and other primate species. Primatologist Jane Goodall became the first to describe such behavior when she witnesses a mother-daughter duo of chimpanzees kill and eat three chimpanzee infants in 1976 and since, it has been described by a number of other researchers. There are a number of possible explanations for such behavior. Due to human encroachment, food is becoming scarcer and more chimpanzees are being cramped into a smaller and smaller area which is a recipe for disaster. As this happens, different groups of primates will be forced into conflict with one another and are fighting territorial debates. Interestingly enough, a study of one group of chimpanzees found that only the aggressive females were involved in the cannibalism of chimpanzee infants. Male chimps were even spotted trying to separate the females from the infants, males that researchers believed to have fathered the infants in question which suggests that chimpanzees have more highly developed social and familial ties than once believed.
Bonobos are by no means known for being aggressive like chimpanzees. Like many other primates they are commonly though of as docile and peaceful creatures, however like their cousins, they have been known to commit acts of savage aggression and cannibalism. Like many other primates, bonobos are omnivores and scientists have long believed that they did eat meat occasionally, scavenging from left-over carcasses. However, a recent study of bonobo behavior in the Democratic Republic of the Congo discovered a group of bonobos that regularly hunted down and cannibalized several infants from neighboring primate species, a behavior never before recorded in bonobo populations. Furthermore, researchers have observed bonobos silently stalking other primates in trees that they were involved in territorial disputes with, silently changing direction and using tree cover to cloak their attack. These advanced behaviors have never been observed in the wild before. Such discoveries have baffled biologists and forced many who study primates to rethink the social structures of many different species and individual populations.
Gorillas have long been thought of as gentle giants. Our ground-dwelling cousins may be the world’s largest primates, but they remain almost strictly vegetarians. Though there diet consists almost entirely of leaves, fruits and shoots, they have been known to eat insects and now, a new study suggests they may be snacking on a bit more. Recent DNA analysis found traces of both monkeys and small forest deer in gorilla droppings sampled from several African populations, suggesting that gorillas may be eating meat after all. Some suggest that gorillas may scavenge carcasses like several of their primate cousins for any nutritional needs that are not satisfied by their vegetarian diets while others claim that gorillas may be opportunistic and discrete hunters. Scientists however note that until gorillas are observed physically eating meat, such behaviors cannot be confirmed because it is very possible that the gorilla scat (that poo) could have contaminated with the suspect DNA through a number of other ways other than consumption.
Perhaps the most well known cannibals of all are humans. Throughout history, in times of extreme hunger and desperation, humans have been forced to turn to cannibalism as a means of survival. During the Middle-Ages, particularly during long sieges, cannibalism became a necessity for many people. Additionally, many groups that become isolated without a constant source of food such as the famous Andes Plane Crash Survivors have found cannibalism a necessary means of survival. Other than out of desperation from starvation and famine, there are a number of reasons for human cannibalism. Most commonly is for religious or spiritual purposes. Either literally or symbolically, cannibalism is practiced in religions from Hinduism, to Vampirism to Catholicism. Furthermore, cannibalism has also been described among the most savage and primitive people; many explores of the Pacific islands and uncharted worlds beginning in the Ate of Exploration brought back tales of savage islanders consuming entire crews alive. Up until the twentieth century, there were still reports of isolated populations counting to practice cannibalism like the Leopard People of western Africa.
Many species of primate are sill hunted and traded for their meat in some African nations.
Although cannibalism has been all but eradicated in today’s world, many humans still consume the flesh of primates. The illegal trade of primate flesh or ‘bushmeat’ has put many species of primate at risk. Populations of chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla and other large primate are declining as entire communities are being hunted down. Adult aniamls are killed for meat and orphans are sold as pets and raised in captivity, usually in deplorable conditions. Largely due to armed conflicts in many turbulent African nations, there has been a significant societal breakdown which has made it much easier for the bushmeat trade to flourish. Despite this groups like The Pan African Sanctuary Alliance are working to prevent further trafficking of bushmeat by raising awareness and sponsoring regulations to prevent further primate poaching.
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In a comprehensive survey of cannibalism in primates in the wild, Hiraiwa-Hasegawa (1992) observed only five species in this practice: Cercopithecus ascanius (redtail monkey), Papio cynocepharus cynocephalus (baboon), Macaca fuscata (Japanese macaque), Gorilla gorilla beringei (mountain gorilla), and Pan troglodytes (common chimpanzee). In each episode observed, infants were eaten after being killed, and this custom appeared to serve a nutritional (therefore, ecological rather than social) purpose in animals who ordinarily consumed meat as a part of their diets. Chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives, have the highest rates of cannibalism among non-human primates; chimpanzees also have the highest rates of predation (of red colobus monkeys) among nonhuman primates.
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